THOMAS ORITI: Changes in government are remarkably rare in Australian federal politics - it’s only happened eight times since the end of the Second World War, but that’s of course what we saw this week with the Albanese Government taking power in the 47th Parliament of Australia. Labor put forth several pieces of legislation, including giving around 11 million workers access to ten days paid domestic violence leave and a bill which would end the cashless debit card scheme. Joining us now is the Minister for Families and Social Services, Amanda Rishworth. Minister, good morning. Thanks for your time.
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Good morning. Great to be with you.
THOMAS ORITI: How was your first week in the new Parliament?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: It was an exciting first week. It was a week where we were able to get down to business and start actually delivering on our election commitments. So it was a big week, a busy week, and a good week.
THOMAS ORITI: Yeah, and a lot of issues I want to discuss with you. We're continuing to see high COVID case numbers around the country, I should say and I want to ask you about a new targeted text message campaign aimed at disability support pension recipients and carer payment recipients. What's the government doing to inform and protect people in the disability community? Because so many of them have told us they certainly feel vulnerable at a time like this. Some of them are already- really feel still in isolation with those COVID case numbers continuing to rise.
AMANDA RISHWORTH: A lot of people with a disability have said they are concerned about COVID, but what we also know is that the vaccination rates for those on the disability support pension are actually lower than the national average. So we need to make sure we're getting the right information to them. We will be rolling out SMS messages to those on a disability pension and also on the carers pension to make sure they've got accurate information and easy to understand information. And so we've worked with people with a disability and carers to get the language right to make sure that this message is really important, to get the information to them so that they have it in front of them.
THOMAS ORITI: I mean, that's admirable, but is it all about getting the language right and making sure they understand it? Aren't access issues a huge part of this as well?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: It’s important people know making sure that they can get the antivirals that are now being made available by this government. There are many places you can get your fourth dose of vaccine. What we know is we need to encourage people with a disability and their carers to make sure that they are protected. And so that is what this SMS campaign is about, is making sure that there is vaccines available out there. There are antivirals if you do get sick. Making sure that they actually are accessed is really important.
THOMAS ORITI: What about how- you know, bringing the vaccine to them, though? A lot of people in the disability community have said that they feel isolated, they don't feel they can go out. So many people are just simply not wearing masks at the moment. They feel vulnerable. I mean, in a similar system to aged care, are vaccines going into areas like group homes?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Well, disability support pensioners are across our community. They live across Australia and so it's about getting the information to those people that may not be connected with the NDIS. They may not be connected with formal disability support. There is already a program working with NDIS providers. The people we're talking about are on a Disability Support Pension but may not be connected to formal services, or a lot of formal services, and that's what this campaign is all about.
THOMAS ORITI: Okay. But still though, on that question though, is it a matter not only about information and access, and then obviously people linking people in without that service, but bringing the vaccines to them so they have equitable access to actually be able to get the shot?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: There is a big program on doing that at the moment, of connecting people that are on the NDIS to getting a vaccine. The people that we are talking about here may not be on the NDIS but getting a Disability Support Pension and their rates of vaccine are lowest. So we've taken this as a really important step to try and make sure that we're communicating with people to make sure that they're accessing both the medication and the vaccines to keep them safe.
THOMAS ORITI: Speaking of the disability community, Minister, advocates are calling for the next leader of the NDIA, the National Disability Insurance Agency, to actually be a person with disability. How's the appointment process going? Are you across that?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: That is a matter for Minister Shorten. I know he is working very hard. He is consulting very much with the whole community about how we appoint the next NDIA chair. And so I'll leave that to Minister Shorten.
THOMAS ORITI: Indeed, but I mean, it's been around for ten years. Do you think it's about time that someone who led the agency actually was an Australian with a lived experience of disability?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: I know that Minister Shorten is deeply committed to making sure the lived experience of people with a disability is embedded in the NDIA and that is- he is going through that process.
THOMAS ORITI: Okay, we'll wait to hear from the outcome of that. Just on another issue, there's a report out from the National Audit Office into the Building Better Regions Fund. It's out today. It's found ministers in the former Coalition government ignored departmental advice and favoured projects in national seats. What do you make of that report?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: This is just another example of how the Liberal Party and National Party while in government used taxpayer’s money as if it was their own money. I mean, looking at this report it is scathing - to suggest that merit based projects were rejected in favour of providing money, more money to National Party and Liberal Party seats. This is just another example of so many examples that the former government had where they ignored advice, they didn’t look at merit, but instead they used it to prop up their marginal seats.
THOMAS ORITI: I'm just looking at remarks from Fiona Nash, a former Nationals Senator. She said ‘well, hang on a minute. The problem here is the departmental processes- the decision makers, are in the cities and they don't have the benefit of that on the ground understanding of regional communities’. Is there merit to that argument?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: I don't think there's merit at all to suggest that an extra $100 million should be funnelled into National Party seats when the department and the information coming in, and the criteria set by the government itself, says that they are not merit based. I think this is just another example of the former government, and we have plenty of examples of it, where they used taxpayer’s money as if it was their own money.
THOMAS ORITI: Minister, I know you've got to go soon. I just want to ask you, because, you know, some communities have had mixed feelings about the cashless debit card being scrapped. Is Labor doing anything to boost education and rehabilitation services targeting problem drinkers?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Firstly, I'd say that there's no evidence to suggest that the cashless debit card did anything to support and help with alcohol misuse in communities where it was used. Instead, the message I've heard strongly from communities is about making sure the right supports are in place. These are complex problems and I am working with communities to make sure that we get the support right.
THOMAS ORITI: Just finally, the ten days paid leave to help people escape violence and find extra support. The Prime Minister's described domestic and family violence as a stain on our national soul. What else will you do to address domestic abuse in Australia?
AMANDA RISHWORTH: This week we did bring in the ten days paid domestic violence leave legislation - really important legislation to make sure that women in particular escaping violence don't have to choose between earning an income and leaving a violent relationship. But of course, in addition, I've made it a priority to finalise the national ten-year plan to end violence against women and children. I'm working with my state colleagues to make sure that, together as a country, we are pulling in the same direction to tackle what is a very wicked problem and a problem that we shouldn't be facing in this country. We need to all work together and I look forward to working with my state colleagues to finalise that plan. In addition, we'll be delivering on our election commitments - more frontline workers, social housing with some dedicated to those women and children escaping domestic violence. We take this issue incredibly seriously and we will continue to push forward on it.
THOMAS ORITI: Minister, it's a pleasure. Thank you very much for joining us.
AMANDA RISHWORTH: Thank you.